A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the storytelling structure in The Force Awakens and how it mimics the narrative shape of A New Hope without the character growth to support it. Today we look at The Last Jedi, the second and most challenging of the new trilogy movies. Where The Force Awakens was too committed to reenacting a familiar story to offer any new ideas, The Last Jedi is too much in love with its ideas to build a story around them.
The Last Jedi does not run on nostalgia like The Force Awakens. It toys with some echoes of The Empire Strikes Back—the rebels are on the run chased by Imperial forces while the novice Jedi goes off to train with an old master, learning something about their parents along the way—but these echoes do not drive the plot the same way A New Hope did for The Force Awakens. The story of The Last Jedi is instead driven by Rian Johnson’s desire to challenge every trope and convention of the space opera that he can.
The movie does a good job posing the questions. What if the hot-shot pilot who doesn’t play by the rules is actually making things worse with his antics? What if the old master is broken by guilt and remorse and doesn’t want to train the chosen one? What if the chosen one isn’t actually all that chosen? What if the previous movie’s shadowy overhanging villain is actually a chump who gets himself bisected mid-monologue? What if the rebels and the Empire both buy their weapons from the same scummy arms dealers? What if the heroes send out a desperate last call for help in their hour of need and no one comes? The what-ifs go on and on, each of them a worthy hook to hang plot on, but none ever taking up any weight. The movie asks plenty of questions, but never gets around to the answers.
Instead of actual development for the plot and characters, we get empty gestures at development. We are clearly meant to think that Poe has Learned a Lesson by the end of the movie when Leia tells the others to follow him, but just what that lesson was and how he learned it are a mystery. Similarly, Finn’s retort to Phasma, calling himself “Rebel scum,” is framed as if it ought to mark a turning point for the character, but the rest of the movie doesn’t do the work of showing us that his relationship to the Rebellion/Resistance matters. Rey comes the nearest to having a character arc. After spending most of the movie looking to others to guide her on what being a Jedi means, she strikes out on her own and uses the Force to move rocks and save her friends. It’s the closest the movie comes to a payoff, but it barely adds anything to her development in The Force Awakens, and it’s not much to show for having Rey stuck between grumpy uncle Luke and creepy stalker Kylo for most of the movie. The structure of a narrative arc is built into the film, but the story isn’t there to fill it.
The time and narrative energy that could have been put into building the story and challenging the characters is instead spent on gambit after gambit that doesn’t pay off. Luke’s lessons teach Rey nothing. Finn and Rose’s side quest to the casino planet is pointless and deflates much of the tension built by the First Order’s pursuit of the fleeing rebels. Poe’s mutiny gets undone with a kicked-over steam vent and a blaster. The movie invests more energy into critiquing the socio-economics of a galaxy far far away than in giving our heroes anything meaningful to do.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this movie is how it dangles the possibility of meaningful development in front of us only to do nothing with it. Characters like Vice Admiral Holdo and Commander D’Acy are vast untapped wells of awesomeness reduced to Teaching a Man a Lesson. The number of times that important moments in the movie correspond to women with outstretched hands—from Rey lifting rocks and Leia pulling herself back out of space to Rose patting a giant horse-puppy and Holdo jumping into hyperdrive—makes it seems as though the gesture ought to mean something, it just doesn’t. Johnson’s other movies, notably his following creation, Knives Out, show that he is quite capable of handling complex story structures (something I’m not confident I can say about J. J. Abrams). In this case, though, it feels as though the director got so focused on making his movie about failure that he ended up failing to make a movie.
None of this is to say that there aren’t good things in The Last Jedi. It has some of the sequel trilogy’s sharpest dialogue and most striking visuals, from Poe’s jabs at Hux at the beginning to the red scars of battle streaming across the stark white ground of the salt planet at the end. It introduces what may in fact be the most daring idea in the new Star Wars universe: that a Jedi can come from anywhere (at least until the next movie took a big step back.) But these things arrive within a movie that is so committed to the task of deconstructing Star Wars that it deconstructs it right down to the ground and leaves nothing behind.
Image: Rey from The Last Jedi via IMDb
In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.